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Is Pakistan finally acting against Islamists?

February 14, 2020

The jailing of the alleged mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks over terror financing charges comes amid growing global pressure on Pakistan to act against Islamist and militant groups. Haroon Janjua reports.

Milli Muslim League Pakistan
Hafiz SaeedImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Ali

A Pakistani anti-terrorism court on Wednesday sentenced Islamist Hafiz Saeed, accused by India and the United States of masterminding the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, to 11 years in jail on terrorism financing charges.

Saeed was the first high profile figure convicted on these charges in Pakistan, which denies regular accusations that it supports and harbors militants.

"Saeed was charged as being part of a banned militant outfit and for acquiring property and money through illicit means. He has been sent to jail," Saeed's lawyer Imran Gill told DW. But Saeed denied the court ruling and will appeal it in a higher court, the lawyer said.

Saeed, 70, is a hero for many Pakistanis. Saeed's groups disavow armed militancy inside Pakistan, but say they offer vocal and moral support for rebel fighters in India-administered Kashmir.

The Taj Hotel in Mumbai during the attack in 2008
The Taj Hotel in Mumbai during the attack in 2008Image: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Tyagi

Pakistan and India both rule the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir in part, but claim it in full. The restive region is a flashpoint between the nuclear-armed archrivals.

Mumbai "Mastermind" 

Saeed is the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), or the Army of the Pure, a group blamed by India and the US for the four-day Mumbai siege in 2008, in which 160 people were killed.

The Islamist cleric has denied any involvement in the attacks and says his network, which spans 300 seminaries and schools, hospitals, a publishing house and ambulance services, has no ties to militant groups.

The US  — which had offered a reward of $10 million for information leading to the conviction of Saeed  — welcomed the court ruling. Saeed is designated a terrorist by the US as well as the United Nations.

This is an international conspiracy against Pakistan, Saeed's spokesperson Habibullah Qamar told DW. "The sentence came under international pressure. Saeed served the poor with his welfare activities and he is not involved in any terrorist act," Qamar said.

Interview with Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan

Pakistan on the FATF grey list

Saeed's jailing comes as Pakistan faces potential blacklisting by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) - an international anti-money-laundering watchdog based in Paris - for failing to combat terror financing.

The country is already on a so-called grey list compiled by the FATF. And blacklisting it would likely result in tough financial and banking restrictions that could cripple Pakistan's already struggling economy.

Some analysts say Saeed's jailing shows that FATF pressure on Pakistan is working.

"To Pakistan's credit, this is further than it has ever gone before with Saeed. It will help ensure that Pakistan is not blacklisted by FATF. That said, this move by Pakistan was clearly in response to pressure from FATF to rein in its terrorist financing problem," Micheal Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, told DW.

Read moreGlobal terror watchlist: Will Pakistan change its Afghanistan policy?

Nevertheless, some believe Saeed's imprisonment would be temporary, a move aimed at the FATF. "Cynics would say, with some justification, that Hafeez Saeed's latest conviction is only to get Pakistan off the hook in FATF. It is not the irreversible action the world has been looking for from Pakistan," Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, who is now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C., told DW.

Saeed has been arrested and released several times over the past decade.

Some observers say Saeed's groups are considered part of state-backed proxies nurtured and supported by the the country's military – Pakistan's most powerful institution - to counter India in the region. The military denies that.

A woman in front of a poster of victims of the attack
An Indian woman walks past a poster with images of police and army personnel who died in the militant attack 2008Image: Getty Images/AFP/P. Paranjpe

No seat for MML

Saeed and his group's charities have even entered mainstream politics under a plan backed by the Pakistani army in a bid to integrate militants into society. They contested a 2018 general election under a new name, Milli Muslim League (MML), but did not win any seats.

Haqqani fears, as in the past, Saeed will be released by the superior courts. This view is shared by Kugelman. "If FATF spares Pakistan from the blacklist, and especially if it is eventually removed from the grey list later this year, then Islamabad may well let Saeed be quietly released," said Kugelman.

Read moreWhat is Jaish-e-Mohammed?

But Zahid Husain, an Islamabad-based political analyst, disagrees. "Saeed will not be freed this time round as these are serious crimes and if released, FATF will act against Pakistan," he told DW.

The real question for Pakistan remains whether it is willing to change its national discourse that portrays men like Hafiz Saeed as national heroes. So far, there is little sign of that.

According to Kugelman, Pakistan may be taking robust measures against terrorists and their funding networks, but at the end of the day it still has a strong interest in maintaining its ties to these assets - and especially because its relationship with India is so bad at the moment.

US offers new reward for Mumbai attackers

Haroon Janjua
Haroon Janjua Journalist based in Islamabad, focusing on Pakistani politics and societyJanjuaHaroon